Garry Monk would say that this form and these results were always in the pipeline. He told us in the media that they were in the pipeline almost two months ago. He has hindsight to support him now but back then he projected an image only he could see: of a team with the capacity to average two points a game, as Leeds United have done for the past eight matches.
It was September 12, the Monday after the club’s defeat to Huddersfield Town. The Monday after Monk let his guard drop in a post-match interview with the BBC, snapping at questions in a way he wished he hadn’t. At the end of a press conference before a league game against Blackburn Rovers, he sat and spoke with the journalists there, clearing the air and chewing the fat. Other coaches before him have done the same, usually when the walls were closing in. You get plain and brutal honesty in those chats; criticism, excuses and self-examination. Much of what’s said is exactly how you imagine they are feeling.
The conversation was off the record and most of it should stay as such but in that environment Monk was free to speak as openly as he liked. He had four points from six games. He had a squad which many of us believed to be lacking in specific areas. And according to estimations of Massimo Cellino’s patience, he was as little as one defeat away from the sack (although people around Cellino always denied that the end was nigh). Those are the bewildering moments which beg the question of why the hell management appeals.
What resonated about Monk was his refusal to blame anything; not his squad, not his budget, not the club’s recruitment and absolutely not Cellino. His attitude was this: a good team were hiding amongst a group of out-of-form players. All he wanted was to dig in for long enough for those players to find the form which made them realise that. “When they do we’ll be okay,” he said. There is something endearing about a manager who asks for nothing more than time. When the cameras were off, some of Monk’s predecessors vented about signings, individual players or Cellino’s influence. Some of those complaints were wholly legitimate. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that a fixation on perceived weaknesses must cloud a manager’s enthusiasm or enjoyment of his job. Had Monk devoted half-an-hour to explaining why the job was so unworkable, we’d have left Thorp Arch and started the countdown.
So here Leeds are, League Cup quarter-finalists and 16 points later. Promotion form they will call it, although only four Championship clubs are averaging two points a game or better after 14 matches so that description is best reserved until Christmas. But this is what Monk promised as a start: a definite pattern of play, greater competence with the basics, and tactics which respect the percentages in this league. His squad have felt their way into the Championship, climbing to a standard which lets him send them out without sending a prayer up first. Football is never the end of the world but Monk was closer to it after Queens Park Rangers than he was after an injury-time concession to Wigan. In Leeds you see the traits of a team who have been coached and of a team who are happy. Of a team with no carcinogenic matter amongst them.
The trick for Monk has been a pragmatic attitude and an acceptance of some short-term limits. He has done a good job of making his players understand those limits. There is a reason why so many fixtures are tight, attritional and settled by one goal: Leeds are not being asked to be something they aren’t or to do what they can’t. That is not to say that Monk’s side can’t play but a coherent defence and a responsible midfield lends itself to reliability. Hadi Sacko is able to be off the cuff and aggressively forward-thinking because the organisation behind him supports some unpredictability. What was obvious at the end of August was that Leeds could not afford to be unpredictable across the field. That mentality extends to Monk’s substitutions, the area of management which drew some criticism of him last week. Much as Monk likes to use his bench, he does not often use it for radical changes of tack or formation. In a sense he plays the odds and, as experience of the league tells us, there are points in a season where risk is more called for.
But this, now, is a crucial phase, starting with Saturday’s game at home to Burton Albion. With due consideration of Burton’s results and impressive start, it is a fixture which Leeds should win, against a side who haven’t won away from home and who like to play three at the back. Leeds would certainly lament any points dropped. Full-time will clear the way for a period up to and over Christmas which promises to examine how far Monk’s squad can go: Norwich away, Newcastle at home, Aston Villa twice and Brighton at The Amex. Not to mention Brentford, Reading and Preston.Leeds are entering sheep-from-the-goats time and with so much of the Championship fused together, it is difficult know who is who. But some stoic work in the past two months must be making Monk think that this side can cut a full year in the Championship, and making him wonder what might happen if they do.